updated 4/6/2005 11:43:08 AM ET 2005-04-06T15:43:08

A U.S. energy official was in Beijing on Wednesday seeking Chinese investment to build the first zero-emissions coal-fired power plant.

The U.S. government research project, called FutureGen, would turn coal into gas before burning it and then trap pollutants so they aren’t released into the atmosphere.

“I invite China to be among the first to join FutureGen,” said Mark Maddox, deputy assistant secretary of energy, in a text of remarks he made to Chinese officials.

A FutureGen plant would cost $950 million to build, with the U.S. inviting foreign partners to buy in for $80 million.

Pollution control hasn’t been enough of a priority for China, though, as it tries to produce as much energy as possible as cheaply as it can, said a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

“There seems to be some begrudging understanding that they need to do it cleaner, but they are trying to do it on a very tight budget,” the official said.

The price tag for building the most advanced, cleanest plant is up to three times as much as for an old-fashioned coal-burning plant.

But, the U.S. is working to convince China that better technology, while expensive, can raise efficiency, reduce pollutants and improve safety, the official said.

Apart from raising concerns about environmental damage, China’s surging energy needs also place the country into competition with the United States for coal and oil supplies, he said.

“They are putting such a premium on security of energy supplies that they are probably driving prices unnecessarily,” the official said.

China’s crude oil imports soared 35 percent last year to 840 million barrels, helping push world prices to their current highs.

“Their policy seems to be at this point: energy at any cost,” he said.

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